The women’s water polo team begins its season with three matches this weekend, including one in which it hosts the defending NCAA champions UCLA, the current #1-ranked team in the nation. However, the Gauchos will enter the weekend boasting a #10 national ranking backed by the return of three of their top scorers who scored a combined 216 goals last season.

Seniors Alaina Whitaker and Jen D’Anna and junior two-time All-MPSF player Aimee Stachowski are the three leading scorers returning from last season. Head Coach Danielle Altman said her team has a very strong group of seniors who exhibit strong leadership. But it’s not all about the seniors this season; Altman highlights the team’s cohesiveness as its biggest asset this season.

“They get along so well in and out of the water,” Altman said. “You can really pick up on that chemistry when they are playing together.”

The athletes also support Altman’s view that they are a very unified team, which they agree only contributes to their talent in the pool.

“We are all extremely close and we all have good strengths in the water,” D’Anna said.

The Gauchos also have several strong freshmen who should be a benefit to their defensive game. Goal keeper and Santa Barbara High School graduate Brittany May and defender Amanda Tipton were at the top of Altman’s list of incoming players to watch this season.

The team begins its weekend with two away games on Saturday at Cal Baptist at 10:30 a.m. and then at Cal State San Bernardino at 2:30 p.m.

D’Anna – the leading returning scorer with 93 goals last season – said these two games will be a good test to see where the team stands.

“Our biggest goal is to never lose to a team we shouldn’t lose to, and everyone on my team knows what that means,” D’Anna said. “If there are any upsets, we want those to be ours.”

D’Anna has started for the Gauchos in each of her four seasons. According to Altman, D’Anna is a great benefit to the team in the realm of leadership as well as in talent.

“I’m not looking forward to the fact that it’s [D’Anna’s] senior year,” Altman said.

Santa Barbara had a 17-12 overall record last year with its season coming to an end with a loss to San Diego State in the first round of the MPSF tournament. However, according to the rankings, the team has improved since finishing last season ranked 11th in the country.

Altman is in her fourth season with the Gauchos and has compiled a 49-44 record here. In eight seasons of head coaching, she holds a record of 113-102. Before coming to Santa Barbara, Altman spent four seasons as head coach at Cal State San Bernardino.

The team has a difficult schedule this year, playing against powerhouses like USC, UCLA and Stanford and also facing tough schools like Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount and Hawaii. The women will also compete in several tournaments, including one at UC San Diego from Feb. 11-12, another in Hawaii during Spring Break and the Gaucho Invitational, which will host the top 16 teams in the nation from Feb. 25-26.

The Gauchos also have to cope with a few injuries even this early in the season. Junior center Sarah Kovach, who had 10 goals last season, is currently sitting out awaiting medical clearance from her doctor after suffering a back injury.

Santa Barbara hosts #1 UCLA on Sunday, with the sprint scheduled to start at noon at Campus Pool.